The so-called rare earth elements such as neodymium, dysprosium or cerium are elements that are of great importance for the energy transition; among others they serve as components of magnets in generators for electric power generation, act as luminescent materials in energy-saving lamps or as part of the car exhaust catalytic converter. The global production of rare earth elements is currently strongly dominated by China. Separating the rare earth elements from each other and purifying them is considered particularly difficult.
English oak buds contain bacteria from which proteins called lanmodulins can be extracted. In a publication by American researchers, these proteins were studied for the separation and purification of rare earth elements. This could help to recover these elements from electronic scrap and thus no longer such large quantities of rare earth elements need to be imported. Besides, the protein-based purification processes would be much more environmentally friendly than conventional ones and thus also of interest for primary producers. Today the procedure is not yet ready for practice: Although the researchers report good separation rates (>98%) and yields (>99%) in the separation of dysprosium and neodymium, however, the rare earth concentrations that have been used are very low. Hence, this would still have to be significantly improved before it could be used in a feasible technical application, and the synthesis of the separating proteins is also a complex step.
Mattocks, J.A., Jung, J.J., Lin, CY. et al. Enhanced rare-earth separation with a metal-sensitive lanmodulin dimer. Nature 618, 87–93 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-05945-5
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